Thursday, 14 November 2013

From Concept to Reality - the Cathean Ltd Medical Writers' Retreat

Note: This article was previously published in Medical Writing 2013; 22(3): 233.
Our group of solopreneurs with Kathryn White and Elaine Bailey

It was while riding my horse, Wilbur, through the autumnal woods close to home that the idea came to me. Why not organise a medical writer’s retreat to provide a support network for freelancers based in the UK?

I am a member of a similar and regional network of freelance clinical researchers who meet once a year to discuss topics relevant to their role. I have found these meetings invaluable and a fantastic opportunity to meet like-minded people. I am also actively involved in the EMWA Freelance Business Forum and have been involved in the Institute of Clinical Research Freelance Forum, so I have experienced, first-hand, how useful these meetings can be.

The task seemed daunting at first but I enlisted the help of business coach Elaine Bailey who acted as a sounding board for my ideas, adding suggestions from her own experience of setting up workshops and training retreats. I knew the idea was good, but I was still uncertain of how to move forward. Why would anyone want to come along to something I had organised and was there a need for such a forum in the UK? Elaine laid down the gauntlet - if I organised one for 2012 she would come along to provide group coaching to the attendees. It was a deal. This would provide the perfect launch and provide participants an opportunity to receive sound business advice, whilst networking with their peers. My objective was to offer my fellow freelancers a day away from the office in comfortable, informal surroundings where everyone could concentrate, without the distractions of work or home-life, on developing themselves and their businesses alongside others in a similar situation. I wanted to bring everyone together to swap ideas, thoughts and concerns.

I am fortunate to have a fantastic network of freelancers and colleagues, many of whom have been mentors to me since beginning my freelance career, while others are considering a move into freelancing, and I have been happy to answer any queries they have about that. The first step was to contact everyone I knew within that network and ask them whether they would attend such a retreat. The response I received was overwhelmingly positive. It seemed my intuition was correct – freelancers do value support from their peers and an opportunity to network with like-minded people.  

I kept the venue for the meeting local to my home to aid the organisational logistics. The Greyhound is a pub in the village where I live and the proprietors very kindly agreed to let me have the use of a room to conduct the retreat. A questionnaire was sent out to the participants beforehand to establish their needs so that, with Elaine’s help, we could tailor the training to meet their requests. The day of the retreat dawned and all my concerns melted away. People travelled from all over the UK to be there. The energy and enthusiasm in the room was palpable. We mixed group discussion with smaller break-out sessions and covered a wide range of topics in relation to managing a business, dealing with client demands and understanding our own value as medical writers. Everyone went away feeling positive and enthused and this was evident from their feedback. On that note, I will hand over to attendee, Alysia,
to give you her perspective.

I have value, do you want some?

Throughout the day, the atmosphere in the room was buzzing. As soon as I sat down I was drawn into conversation with the other freelancers around me. The range of freelance experience in our group was varied and so were our client portfolios. The honest revelations and often humorous contributions from the floor, combined with Elaine’s clever guidance using descriptive keywords and quotes helped us to collate a fantastic bundle of ideas and tools with which to improve our careers as freelancers.

When asked what issues we wanted to tackle in our freelancing lives, most of our concerns fell into two categories: how to become better freelancers and how to optimise client relationships. Some of us wanted to improve our time management and be more effective at our jobs, others wanted to learn how to best deal with criticism without feeling devalued. Some of us felt that we had taken on too much work, while others wanted to attract more clients through better marketing. All of us felt uncomfortable in talking about money with our clients.

After putting our heads together, a number of valuable strategies emerged on how a freelancer can grow and improve including how to master self-leadership and how to believe in our own self-worth. Our discussions also covered the practical sides of running a freelance business, including the value of online visibility in the form of freelance registries, a business website and social media sites. 

With all that brain storming we were ready for a late lunch at the pub! After good food and drink we all returned home. For some this was just a short walk, for others it was as far as North West England and Wales. Had it been worth the long drive over? Definitely and I am looking forward to the next one.
The next one was held on 20 Sept 2013 and was another great success! Thank you to everyone for their continued support of this initiative.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Home or away?

Bridgewater Monument, Ashridge Park (photo courtesy of Linda Pottinger)
This is my new writing haven - Ashridge Park. It is a beautiful location, where I can enjoy an al fresco coffee at the cafe whilst working. There are some days when I just need to get out of the office to think about my business or to work on a client project. This place is where my creativity seems to flow.

 In a recent ezine, Christine Kane (internationally renowned life-coach and founder of Uplevel You) quoted a colleague who said, 'the environment you set up for yourself to work in is cruical to the output you create.' I totally agree with this. Some of my best work has come whilst sat in a cafe, away from my normal home-office envrionment. An article in the recent Writing Magazine (Aug 2013) describes how 'write-away days' can help to re-set the boundaries between work and creativity, when they begin to blur after spending too much time 'sitting at the same desk in front of the same computer'. Sometimes, working as a freelance writer from home can be lonely so working at a local cafe means that I'm amongst people without necessarily having to interact with them. This seems to be when I'm at my most focused, and it's well worth the investment in a cup of coffee or two!

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Freelancing and life-coaching - an update three years on

In 2011 I described how life-coaching helped me to make the transition from employed medical writer to self-employed freelancer.1 Three years after making the leap, I am thoroughly enjoying life as a freelance medical writer. I have continued my investment in coaching which has enabled me to further develop my business and maintain a work-life balance. It is good to feel that you’re not alone, to have someone to bounce ideas off and to challenge your way of thinking in order to try something new. Here is an update on how I’m getting on, with some thoughts and advice based on what I’ve learned along the way through coaching and on-the-job experience.
One of the biggest concerns I had during the early months of being freelance was cash-flow. Going from a guaranteed monthly income to being paid on a relatively ad-hoc basis was a scary concept to grasp. Firstly, I set myself a target for my yearly turnover, wrote it down in my business plan, thereby “announcing it to the Universe”. Some people may question my reference to the Universe and possibly my sanity, but I strongly believe that you make your own fortune in life and often get what you wish for! Coaching, and reading a book called “Money and the Law of Attraction” has helped me to change my overall approach to money.2  Simply by changing my language from repeatedly saying, “I can’t afford it” to “I can afford it” and understanding that by spending money I’m investing in my future and the life I want has been a leap of faith, but that change in attitude has paid dividends.
One of the main attractions for me to become freelance was to have more flexibility with respect to my time, and the work I took on. However, in the early months I panicked if I had a quiet period. I have learned that workload flows in peaks and troughs, and this is normal!  Coaching has taught me how to utilise my time more effectively. If I have a quiet period then I concentrate on business development, exploring potential marketing and networking opportunities, updating my website, writing blogs, and investing in my own professional development. I also adapt my working day, when possible, to schedule time for interests outside of medical writing, such as riding my horse, or meeting friends for coffee. I know that I have the freedom to work weekends or evenings, in order to meet my clients’ deadlines.
Valuing your time:
Let’s face it; no-one else will make this a priority other than you. There is a general myth that the more hours you work the more successful you’ll be. How many of us remember the raised eyebrows, and pointed glances at watches when we walked out of the office on time? In the beginning, this mindset spilled over into my freelance life too - if I wasn’t working 8-hour days then my business would surely fail. Now, I understand it’s smart working that’s the key to success. In Timothy Ferriss’ book “The 4-hour Work Week”, he states: “Being busy is most often used as a guise for avoiding the few critically important but uncomfortable actions”.3 Facebook and emails can soak up an awful lot of time! Therefore, it’s important to identify and prioritise your highest value work, and if possible, delegate other work (see Delegation). By effectively scheduling your time you can work pro-actively rather than reactively to client and business demands.
Do not underestimate the power of relaxation. Ideas often pop into your head when you’re in the bath or taking a walk in the countryside! Having some free time, away from the desk and client demands, gives us the opportunity to re-charge our batteries and consider new ideas, keeping ourselves and our business fresh. The 90-minute rule suggests that we can’t focus for longer than this period of time without renewal; so frequent breaks will result in enhanced focus that compensates for the free time you’ve had.4 Whereas I used to feel as if I had to be at my desk all day (again, a spill-over from being employed), but life is about learning to balance work and play.
I struggled with this initially until my business coach turned it around and said that by contracting someone to perform tasks for me; I was investing in their skills and business. This resonated with me and I now delegate non-business tasks to free up more time for me to work on my business. Employing a cleaner or a gardener can free up hours of your time and reduce stress. Part of the appeal of freelancing was being able to do the job I love, without the stress of people-management. So, by hiring help - such as a cleaner, gardener, accountant, book-keeper, etc., you are getting the work done without having employees.  
Variety of work:
I love the fact that I have the opportunity to work on a wide range of projects with a variety of clients. Over time I’ve become more aware of the kind of projects I really enjoy doing. As my self-confidence has grown I’ve taken on projects that I may have turned down initially due to a perceived lack of knowledge on my part. I will always remember a freelance colleague telling me, “The first rule of contracting is never turn down work because you don’t think you’re good enough to do it – smile sweetly to yourself, agree with the client that you’ll do it, put down the phone, and then scream!”. If I’m too busy to take on a project then I may consider sub-contracting work to fellow freelance colleagues. This way I don’t lose clients, and I think it’s a great learning opportunity to work with fellow freelancers and peers.
Identify your ideal client:
If you know the work you love to do, and therefore you’re able to identify your ideal client then this will help you to go out and find more of it. I’ve learned not to be afraid of turning down work if it doesn’t fit in with my business goals or work ethic. So far, other work has always filled the void. Through business-coaching I’ve been able to build a fantastic client-base, and increase the number of projects that really play to my strengths. Recently, I was thrilled when one of my clients, who knew I was an equestrian journalist, asked me to write articles for a company newsletter. This allowed me to combine my journalism skills with my knowledge of the pharmaceutical industry.  I loved it and even got more articles to write as a consequence as my passion fuelled my success.
I cannot deny that there are some days when I wake up feeling worried or stressed about the day ahead. Most of my worries are about the running of my business rather than the work itself, and largely due to my tendencies to be a perfectionist. But that’s a whole article in itself! Being a freelancer demands a lot of courage but the rewards can be fantastic, and with regular coaching, I have reached goals I never knew were possible.

1. White K. A leap of faith – the power of life-coaching. The Write Stuff 2011; 20(4):251-252 (also available on this Frog Blog)


I would like to thank business and life-coaches Elaine Bailey ( and Kevin Watson ( for their continued guidance and inspiration.
Note: this article was published in Medical Writing 2013; 22(2):158

Monday, 4 February 2013

Getting the best out of your website

Cathean LtdMany freelancers now have their own websites. Designed correctly, websites are a great marketing tool for your business, attracting new clients and keeping in touch with your current client base. Based on my experience, here are some tips for maximising your website’s potential.


  1. Search engine optimisation is the term given to improving your website’s visibility on the internet. Think of the key words that people might use when looking for a medical writer, and include these in your website text, including text relating to images on your site.

  2. Websites are a form of advertising so consider your target audience with regards to your choice of images, visuals and text. Ensure the text is accurate with respect to spelling and grammar, and take time to align text and images so the overall picture is pleasing to the eye. If you can’t get these simple things right, potential clients may wonder what else you may get wrong.

  3. Whilst you want to get information across, don’t make your website too “wordy”. Use pictures to create interest and white space to rest the eyes – reading from a screen, particularly on phones, can be tiring.

  4. Make it easy to navigate around your site. Use clearly marked tabs and internal links to other pages on your website.

  5. Don’t bombard your reader with highly detailed information all at once – enable them to “drill down” or navigate to the detail as required.

  6. To increase traffic to your website, see if you can persuade other related businesses to put a link to your site on their website, and return the favour.

  7. Writing a blog can also increase traffic and your visibility through search engines because it gives you the opportunity to regularly update your site’s content. It’s also a fantastic way of keeping in touch with your clients.

This article was published in Medical Writing 2012; 21 (4): 332.